The open conformation of the nitrogen channel in a molybdenum-dependent nitrogenase. Enlarge the image to see a side-by-side comparison of the open and closed forms. Results: Mother Nature’s helper in turning nitrogen from the air into ammonia is an enzyme called nitrogenase that uses molybdenum and iron; scientists want to learn natural catalyst’s secrets and apply them to synthetic catalysts. To do so, they first need to know how the nitrogen gas reaches the heart of the catalyst. While scientists have posited long, convoluted routes, a team from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Utah State University discovered the actual channel the nitrogen uses. It is short and direct. They discovered the channel by identifying groups of proteins on the catalyst’s surface that guard access to the metal atoms, twisting aside to allow nitrogen in. “Our channel is the only one anyone has seen in action,” said Dr. Simone Raugei, a theoretical chemist at PNNL who worked on the study. Why It Matters: Producing ammonia for use in fertilizer is an energy-intense reaction, known as the Haber-Bosch reaction, that requires high temperatures, around 500 degrees Celsius. The reaction consumes hydrogen gas derived from fossil fuels. Nitrogenase takes fundamentally different process to produce ammonia, and this
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